James Madison took upon himself the study of ancient and modern confederacies. He then went on to compose a summary of the vices of the political system of the United States. He surveyed the failures of the Articles of Confederation in a fashion so unsparing that any thought of mere amendment would be worthless.
Study of Different Confederacies
James Madison studied the Swiss Helvetic confederacy of 1308, the Belgic confederacy of 1679, the old imperial German Confederation, while trolling through Montesquieu, Polybius, Plutarch’s Lives, Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World, and histories of Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries. After a thorough study, he then composed a summary of what he called the vices of the political system of the United States. He listed 11 such vices, all of them having something important to say.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
James Madison and the 11 Vices of the US Political System
The first vice Madison listed was the failure of the states to comply with the constitutional requisitions. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states had refused to pay their portion of the federal budget, something which, from Madison’s review of similar forms of government, was so inherent.
Madison also pointed at the encroachments by the states on the federal authority, which he saw particularly in the troops raised and to be kept up by Massachusetts during Shays’s Rebellion. This was the second vice.
Learn more about Benjamin Franklin and the framing of the Constitution.
Personal Interpretations of Treaties
The third vice was the violations of the law of nations and of treaties. Individual states interpreted the treaty of peace with Great Britain, as well as other treaties, to suit themselves, either by refusing to return confiscated Loyalist property or to satisfy pre-war debts to British subjects.
This was already inducing the British to refuse to hand over the western frontier posts they were pledged to evacuate under the 1783 treaty that ended the Revolution, and it was an attitude which was going to pay evil dividends in trying to persuade the Spanish to open navigation rights on the Mississippi to American commerce.
Need for a Strong Federal Authority
Fourth in the list of vices was trespasses of the states on the rights of each other. And here, Madison had dead in his aim the floods of state paper money. Paper money, instalments of debts, occlusion of courts, making property a legal tender, may, likewise be deemed aggressions on the rights of other states, and it required the creation of a federal authority worthy of the name to restrain this.
Want of concert in matters where common interest requires it was the fifth vice Madison listed. There were institutions and responsibilities which any nation requires. These were often blocked by the states using their almighty vetoes in the Confederation Congress.
Laws against Internal Violence
The sixth vice was the want of guaranty to the states of their constitutions and laws against internal violence. It wasn’t weapons or resources which overturned a republic’s majority. One-third of those who participate in the choice of the rulers may be rendered a majority if they can arouse enough of the mob to vote for them.
Madison’s seventh vice flowed directly out of the sixth: want of sanction to the laws, and of coercion in the government of the Confederacy. Should some band of lowlifes succeed in putting one of their own at the head of a state, was the national government merely to stand by helpless and shrug its shoulders, until one by one the states were converted in similar fashion into nasty little despotisms?
Ratification of the Articles and Review of State Laws
The eighth vice: want of ratification by the people of the Articles of Confederation. Madison had noticed that recognition of the Confederation’s authority had never been incorporated into several of the state constitutions, and has received no other sanction than that of the legislative authority.
The ninth vice Madison lists is multiplicity of laws in the several states. Under the Articles, there was no review of state laws by the national government to ensure that the state laws did not contradict each other.
Mutability of the laws of the states was the tenth vice he noted. Not only did the state laws overlap and contradict, they were constantly being repealed or superseded before any trial can have been made of their merits, and even before a knowledge of them can have reached the remoter districts within which they were to operate. That, Madison hinted, was particularly fatal to commerce, since “in the regulations of trade, this instability becomes a snare not only to our citizens, but to foreigners also.”
Learn more about creating the US Constitution.
Check against Changeable State laws
Finally, in the 11th vice, Madison unleashed his most personal arrow, for not only were the state laws as changeable as the weather, their very instability suggested something ominous about the republican government itself.
Overall, Madison strongly felt that the state legislatures, to be blunt, were filled with greedy, small-minded, provincial types who are incapable of rising above the narrow horizons of self-interest. This, he found, was an attitude not only fatal to the Articles, but a contradiction of the self-denial and civic virtue which was supposed to suffuse a republic. It made the world wonder, as George Washington had feared, that a republic might be beyond the capacity of ordinary people.
Common Questions about James Madison and the Failures of the Articles of Confederation
James Madison observed that Individual states interpreted the treaty of peace with Great Britain, as well as other treaties, to suit themselves.
The British were to hand over the western frontier posts which they pledged to evacuate under the 1783 treaty that ended the Revolution.
James Madison had noticed that recognition of the Confederation’s authority had never been incorporated into several of the state constitutions, and had received no other sanction than that of the legislative authority.